By Mary Boyle
Charlotte Brontë is widely regarded as one of the first feminist writers. She published her famous novel, Jane Eyre, in 1847 under the name Currer Bell, so that she might be judged fairly as a writer in a time when women had very little career choices. Her story, which is somewhat autobiographical, was an instant hit in literary London, and quite controversial, both because nobody seemed to know who Currer Bell was, and because the heroine of the story dared to suggest that women had every bit as much heart and spirit as men, and further dared to question the fairness of their lot. Feminism alone, though, is arguably not what has made Brontë 's story remain so popular; great storytelling, and the variety of angles the story can take, has taken it from page to screen to stage, and back to page, time and time again. Now, the Milwaukee Rep will take their turn at it, with Polly Teale's adaptation of Jane Eyre.
For many, the appeal of Jane Eyre is the irresistibly romantic relationship between the wealthy and lonely Mr. Rochester and the poor, but intelligent, governess he has hired to care for his ward, Adele. These fans would likely consider the novel a romance; however, there is every bit as much mystery and drama in the story, as well as Jane's struggle to be true to herself, and it is this aspect that Teale focuses on, by emphasizing the similarities between Bertha, Mr. Rochester's secret wife, and Jane.
"It is significant that Bertha is a foreigner. She comes from the land of Brontë's imagination; from a land of hot rain and hurricanes. She is both dangerous and exciting. She is passionate and sexual. She is angry and violent. She is the embodiment of everything that Jane, a Victorian woman, must never be."
While the actors are dressed in period attire, the set design is almost shockingly modern and sparse. In the novel, Jane (Margaret Ivey) is our narrator; on stage, we don't just hear her story as she tells it, but we experience it with her, speeding through her wretched childhood until she unknowingly meets her employer, Mr. Rochester (Michael Sharon), on her way into town on an icy winter evening. In this tale, Bertha (Rin Allen) is not just Mr. Rochester's secret wife, she is Jane's alter ego; the part of Jane that must be locked away, as Jane once was, in the awful red room as a child.
A handful of actors play multiple characters: Andy Paterson is John Reed (Jane's evil cousin) and Richard Mason (Bertha's brother), while Christine Toy Johnson plays Bessie, Blanche Ingram, Grace Poole, and Diane Rivers. Tina Stafford is both Mrs. Reed, Jane's aunt, and Mrs. Fairfax, Mr. Rochester's housekeeper, and Rebecca Hirota plays Jane's childhood friend, Helen Burns, and Mr. Rochester's boisterous French ward, Adele, as well as Mary Rivers. Damian Beldet plays Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood School, and also Lord Ingram and Saint John Rivers.
Directed by KJ Sanchez, The Rep's Jane Eyre remains a powerful tale of perseverance, integrity, and love. Michael Sharon is a practically perfect Mr. Rochester, and audiences will adore the witty banter between Mr. Rochester and Jane, as well as the obnoxiously pompous demeanor of Damian Baldet's Saint John. Fans of the romance of Jane Eyre will be satisfied, while fans of the drama of Jane Eyre will be well rewarded with this intriguing and artistic adaptation of Brontë 's greatest work.
Jane Eyre runs through May 21 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, located at 108 E Wells Street in Milwaukee. Tickets may be purchased online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com, by phone at 414-224-9490, or at the Ticket Office at 108 E Wells Street, Milwaukee.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Milwaukee Rep is a nationally-recognized company that presents compelling dramas, powerful classics, award-winning contemporary works and full-scale musicals housed in its three unique performance venues – the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio and Stackner Cabaret. The Rep also produces an annual production of A Christmas Carol, which featured a World Premiere of a new adaptation in 2016, at the historic Pabst Theater. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Managing Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity.